Pictured above are the remains of what looks like a burned sofa bed at Via Quintero, a street at the end of the Bridge to Nowhere that Santa Barbara County Fire describes as the origin of the Bridge Fire. Social media messages indicate the fire started from a burning sofa. | Credit: Victor Bryant

Sunday night’s Bridge Fire in Santa Barbara was called fully contained Monday morning, but firefighters stayed on site to dig out any hot spots. Mapping using infrared sensors put the fire at just under 8.2 acres, and no injuries were reported.  Controversy and complaints, however, are being voiced online about how some people received notification of the fire and others did not.

The cause remains under investigation, and it appears to have had a suspicious origin, according to County Fire’s tweets, next to the fields by the Bridge to Nowhere, properly called Salvar Road. Social media messages identified the starting place as a couch and said five people were seen nearby. Photos of what looks like a burned-out sofa bed above Cieneguitas Road were posted on social media, too, which seems to give truth to that rumor.

While fire ordinarily runs uphill, this one moved downhill, pushed by winds of about 10 mph, rising to gusts of 20 mph, said County Fire spokesperson Captain Scott Safechuck, headed toward the homes on Cieneguitas Road. Low-flying aircraft carrying water and fire retardant were nearly over the heads of the people evacuating the area, though a drone was also spotted, endangering the air operation. About 120 individuals fought the fire, including engine, dozer, and aircraft crews, chiefs, and firefighters from the County and City of Santa Barbara.

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The winds blew the smoke across the canyons and along Foothill Road as emergency alerts went out first across the wireless system and then the reverse dialing system. Sheriff’s deputies and Search & Rescue volunteers went door to door, knocking and ringing doorbells to evacuate the people on Calle Caridad and Cieneguitas closest to the fire above Foothill.

Numerous complaints were made to responding agencies because the telephone alerts arrived seemingly at random. Kelly Hubbard, who leads the county’s Office of Emergency Management, explained how the emergency alert systems worked. Once the fire department assesses the fire, her office and the Sheriff’s Office identify and outline the area to be evacuated. The emergency alert messages first go out via cell towers in the evacuation area, but the towers, which are owned by individual carriers, broadcast the message to all the carrier’s cell phones in the zone, whether or not the owner is registered in the evacuation area. Hubbard said this is further complicated by the fact that all carriers might not have a cell tower in the emergency area. Confusion arises when some people receive the message who are near the fire, but often people beyond the fire — but within the range of particular carriers’ cell towers — also receive the message.

Both the Wireless Emergency Alert system and cell tower technology are in the hands of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is working to enable all towers to connect to all cell phones in an emergency, Hubbard said. It is the fastest way to reach the most people.

Opting for the virtues of redundancy, the county uses three systems to alert its residents, and the wireless alert is just one of them, said Hubbard. The other two are the reverse 9-1-1 dialing system and the knocks on doors by emergency personnel. Alerting the nearest neighbors is most important, Hubbard said, but once those are underway, they turn to the county websites; next are the Twitter networks of the Office of Emergency Management — in English and Spanish — Santa Barbara County, and the Sheriff’s Office to provide the information again.

“We are always working to improve the data that we can control,” she said, “and part of that is needing residents to update their information.” Hubbard recommended making sure all phone numbers and email addresses are correct and up to date, as well as the method of alert — such as text, phone call message, and so on — and the locations or addresses for which you want to be notified. The website ReadySBC.org contains the sign-up links.

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